In 1985, Dario Argento's 9th film as director was unleashed to the big screen- Phenomena. The movie was about an American student played by Jennifer Connelly who is attending boarding school in Switzerland. However there is a killer on the loose, despatching students. As a sub plot Connelly has an interesting relationship with insects which seem to warm to her presence, guide and protect her
Connelly was cast after Argento had been on the set briefly for Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in America, which had seen Connelly in a small but significant scene as a dancer watched through a keyhole. Leone had told Argento of her qualities and she was just the right person that Argento had been looking for with regards to his next project.
However the script called for Connelly to be naked in some scenes which she and her parents flatly refused. Connelly was just 13 years old at the time of filming. Argento had flown out to the States for the sole purpose of recruiting the child actor and therefore changed the script, her parents agreed and Connelly was signed up to the movie.
Along with Connelly's performance Phenomena of course will always be remembered for its central point: the insects.
In truth if we truly inspect Dario Argento's earlier movies we will notice that the Italian horror maestro had a long running relationship with insects. Indeed on more than one occasion they acted as a macguffin- made so famous by the films of Alfred Hitchcock as the film's key element.
Argento had already used bugs in such movies as Four Flies on Grey Velvet, where an insect was used in the key medallion scene. This was followed up by the maggots falling from the ceiling in perhaps his most well known movie 1977s Suspiria. Its loose follow up Inferno had ants revealing a secret passage
Argento once told author Alan Jones "Like other children I thought nothing of impaling flies on pins and tying their legs together with cotton to watch them struggle. But that simplistic view changed when I started researching and found out schizophrenics and mediums were often affected by insect behaviour in a way that was almost telepathic. This possible paranormal kindship interested me. Then I learned how important maggots are to police autopsies regarding pinpointing the exact times of death. Fascinating material to turn into a suspense shocker I thought."
With a budget of just under $4 million, Phenomena was shot in the summer and autumn of 1984 and was released first in Italy in January 1985. It didn't reach American shores until the following summer.
Argento knew that he needed a more recognizable actor to market the movie beyond Italy and he signed up Donald Pleasence to play Professor John McGregor. Pleasence lent a natural professionalism to the movie even if he was putting on a Scottish accent.
His character quickly becomes Connelly's father figure as he is amazed at her ability with insects and believes with her help that they can find the missing bodies that the serial killer has been hiding away and thus the killer.
Pleasence is accompanied by a highly skilled and trained monkey named Tanga- who Connelly despised after the monkey bit a small part of her finger off on set. She was rushed to hospital and the missing part re attached but crew swear that the monkey was cold to Connelly for the rest of the shoot. Tanga's greatest moment of acting is the scene in which it is trying its best to save its master (Pleasence) from the killer, ripping at the door and showing genuine fear and helplessness. On some movie posters for Phenomena which was re titled Creepers in some countries, Tanga got star billing.
Argento's love of bugs had only been one element in Phenomena coming together. The other was when he checked into a health clinic in Zurich and became a vegetarian. The regime was so strict that it got Argento thinking about authority and education, like a boarding school of sorts. The area in which the clinic was based was also known to locals as the Swiss Transylvania, which rather made the horror mad Argento excited. It was named this because of the annoying wind called The Fohn. These ideas all gelled together in Argento's head and he called up writer Franco Ferrini and the idea of Phenomena was born. What's more is the relationship between Argento and Ferrini which would plant its seeds here and go on to the present day.
For the role of Frau Bruckner, the deceiving teacher, Argento finally turned to his ex lover Daria Nicoldi, the mother of Asia Argento. However the pair didn't get on during filming and they could be seen many times screaming at each other. Despite their on going problems which went back to Suspiria, Argento would always turn to her and used her also in Inferno and Tenerbre.
Luigi Cozzi was in charge of the numerous special effects which would be needed in Phenomena. Some were awkward but simple in the fact that real flies were used in scenes such as when Connelly famously tells students harrassing her that she loves them all. At this point millions of flies descend on the school buildings windows trying to get in.
Other moments such as the swaths of flies seen in the night sky were used by methods of superimposing. The fly landing on Connelly's hand was actually animation and microphotography was used to film flies actions for several hours hoping that just one second would reveal continuity within the movie.
As is staple with all Argento's movies are the music and the violence. The soundtrack ranged from the familar tones of Goblin to English metal act Iron Maiden. Ex Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman was even drafted in to perform a track and Motorhead's Locomotive is used more than once in the movie.
The murders as you would expect are super violent and it has always been a theme that Argento has been reluctant to hold back on. However Phenomena isn't laden with bodycounts and compared to some of his other projects isn't the most goriest offering from the Italian. The knife through the neck and mouth is probably the most stand out effect in the movie.
Though when we mention effects we must conclude with the killer's son, a child but not just any child. One who is withdrawn and highly disfigured. Terrified of mirrors. His introduction is when Connelly is trying to find a way to escape the basement house when she stumbles upon a room. The boy has his face turned away, at this point Argento uses the trick of looping in a real kids voice and moans so that we the viewer believe that what we will see will be a normal kid and nothing to fear. It's the classic build up, the tension scene created in part by Hitchcock. And then the boy turns round to reveal the true horror of his image.
The scene that follows is highly reminiscant of the climax from Friday the 13th. The kid chases Connelly onto a boat by a lake. A lake, a boat a disfigured boy, a murderous over-protective mother- all elements of Sean S Cunnigham's hit five years previously. Of course Phenomena could be called high art compared to the former routine slasher movie.
The final quarter of an hour of the movie really does deliver, with a frantic search for the killer in the hidden basement. Phenomena has two endings- the boat scene which we believe is the end and then Connelly's final meeting with her father which should tie the movie up with a happy climax. However happy endings and Argento don't always go hand in hand, and so the real killers identity Frau Bruckner is revealed and she slices her fathers head off with aplomb. Just as she is going to decapitate Connelly, Tanga the monkey comes to the rescue and finally avenges the death of his master in return.
Phenomena may not be one of the most fondly remembered of Argento's impressive works. But that is only largly in part due to his depth of standout movies. It is indeed a highly stylized film, that is worth repeated viewings. If you haven't yet checked it out, do so as Phenomena celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.